Italy Vows To Continue Iraq Fight

Images of terrorism jolted Italy on Thursday, prompting a nation divided over the Iraq war to express its determination not to flee the battlefield after 18 Italians were killed.

A day after a suicide truck bombing at an Italian compound in Iraq, a single photograph appeared on the front pages of all three major national newspapers: a lone Italian soldier, his back to the dusty debris of the gutted building, gripping his helmet in dismay.

Lobina Bonaria, a 51-year-old housewife, cried and prayed with her husband outside the Rome headquarters of the Carabiniere paramilitary police, which lost 12 members in the suicide attack.

"What do we tell the children, the wives?" said Bonaria, among a stream of mourners paying tribute. "The pain is too great, my heart is full of words but it's hard to express them."

Early Wednesday, a truck blew up outside the Italian compound in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. The blast also killed four Army soldiers, an Italian civilian and an Italian documentary filmmaker.

Another Italian was alive but has been declared brain dead.

An Iraqi doctor said the bodies of 13 non-Italians also were recovered.

Italy's normally rowdy political debate was markedly restrained Thursday. Political enemies appeared — at least for the moment — to agree that Italy should not pull back after the nation's worst military disaster since World War II.

The government declared Thursday there would be a day of mourning when the victims' bodies return, but was unclear when that would occur.

But Italians already were mourning, with the most moving tributes including phone messages left at Carabinieri stations.

One woman began her call with a firm voice.

"I wanted to call only to express my condolences to all of you" — she began to weep — "and to thank you for what you have done. May God bless you."

Ahead of the war, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi aligned himself with President Bush, supporting the conflict despite opposition by most Italians. Berlusconi did not send combat troops, instead contributing a 2,500-strong contingent to rebuild the country after Saddam Hussein fell.

Immediately after Wednesday's attack, Berlusconi pledged that Italy would not budge from its mission.

A few marginal opposition groups called for Italian troops to leave Iraq, but mainstream center-left politicians simply urged a faster transition of power to the Iraqis and a larger role for the United Nations.

The opposition Olive Tree coalition met Thursday, but issued comments that were far less strident than usual.

"The great majority of the Olive Tree has clear ideas: that today it is wrong to leave Iraq — it would be giving in to terrorism," said Enrico Boselli, the leader of a small socialist party in the coalition.

But, he added, "There's no doubt that the mission should be reviewed, giving a new role to the United Nations."

The leftist La Repubblica newspaper, which generally is scathing about any Berlusconi policy, took a more moderate position in a front-page editorial Thursday.

"Whoever speaks of a pullout of our men after a murderous terrorist attack is making this postwar period ideological just as Berlusconi made the war ideological," it said.

The centrist La Stampa said Italy's vision of a mission of peace was bloodied by war.

The attack "is certainly not comparable to September 11," the paper said. But "it has for us the same meaning: not just a deeply sad warning, but a declaration of war."

That declaration was made directly last month, when Osama bin Laden cited Italy in taped comments threatening several countries playing roles in Iraq.

Alessandro Ascoli, a 21-year-old studying to become a Carabiniere, said he believed Italians would face attack in Iraq sooner or later, but that did not lessen his mourning.

"Political bickering doesn't count for anything at this time," he said. "What counts is the deaths."

By Tom Rachman